The biggest stories from NU's 44-30 win over Cal.
The Offense Sans Colter and Mark
With Kain Colter and Venric Mark relatively ineffective or our for most of the game, Northwestern had to rely on Trevor Siemian and the passing game — along with a stellar performance from running back Treyvon Green — to carry the offense. At first, it worked. Siemian was a star, starting 10-for-11, but the NU offense stalled early in the second half and couldn't get going again until late in the game.
After Siemian's initial success, a number of people commented on Twitter that the Wildcats should consider playing him as its lone quarterback, but the rest of the game showed why that simply isn't a good idea. Siemian is an asset in the passing game, but what makes NU's offense outstanding is how dynamic it is in the two-quarterback system. Siemian can come in an be successful in a two-minute drill — as he has proven — but the NU offense struggled near the goal line and in short-yardage situations today, and that's largely because Colter wasn't in the game.
NU has been extremely successful running the zone read with Colter and Mark because the defense has to respect both players' running abilities. Namely, the defensive end can't crash toward the running back on the zone read, because if they do, Colter will take off running — in the zone read, the quarterback keeps the ball if the end crashes toward the running back. However, Siemian had a telling quote today:
"If a guy goes inside and I've got to pull it, I've got to pull it."
Basically, with Siemian running the zone read, teams crash toward the running back, betting that either 1) Siemian will hand it off anyways, or 2) they can still catch him if he holds on to the ball. So far, defenses have been successful using that strategy.
Even in non-short yardage plays, it was obvious that NU missed Colter's presence. The Wildcats became very predictable — run up the middle or a long pass — when the offense is based off of unpredictability and making the opponent pick its poison. Today, the NU offense had just enough to work, thanks in large part to the giant holes that opened up in Cal's secondary. However, against a better secondary — say, Ohio State — NU is going to need Colter and Mark in top form. Without the two-quarterback system, the Wildcats can't beat top-notch competition.
The Pass Defense
The injuries to Colter and Mark weren't the only ones in this game. The other serious one was Daniel Jones, who didn't return and looks likely to miss a lot more time. He was replaced by Dwight White, who gave up a big touchdown pass over the top when he came into the game, but settled down and finished off well.
The secondary is going to catch a lot of flack after this game, and some of it will be warranted — White struggled for a bit and Nick VanHoose was off. However, a lot of the pass defense's second half struggles came from the interior defensive line's difficulty to create pressure. The defensive tackles did a good job in the first half — sans the first drive — but they were on the field a lot more in the second half, and once they started giving Cal quarterback Jared Goff more time to throw, he picked the Wildcats' defense apart.
The secondary might need some help, but the interior defensive line is just as critical to having a sound pass defense.
In addition to the Mark, Colter and Jones injuries, NU had a number of players go down to minor injuries. True freshman Matt Harris — the only true freshman to play — went down on the opening kickoff. Then, in the second half, stars Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo, along with Will Hampton, went down, some of them multiple times.
Cal fans booed, asserting that NU was faking injuries to slow down its offense. Cal coach Sonny Dykes looked displeased, and after he was asked if Dykes said anything in the postgame handshake, Fitzgerald replied, "You can ask him." So, uhh... yes. Dykes was upset. Fitzgerald said,"If anybody were to question the integrity of myself, my program, our players, I'd question theirs."
Regardless of the injury situation, Cal is the last team on earth that should be questioning fake injuries. They're the only ones who have actually gotten in trouble for it. Here's the video of their fake injury against Oregon two years ago: